500,000 in Gaza Strip are left without power

August 21, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Tens of thousands of Gaza Strip residents were without electricity yesterday after the European Union stopped paying to supply fuel to a Gaza power station serving more than a fourth of the coastal enclave.

It was not clear whether European aid, cut off to deny the radical Hamas movement money, would be resumed or how long power outages in central Gaza would go on. A din of private generators dominated Gaza City's main market areas as merchants and residents sought to keep lights on.

The blackouts, which began Friday night and affected more than 500,000 residents by Sunday, spelled fresh anxiety for Gazans who have felt increasingly cut off since Hamas took control of the impoverished strip in June by routing the rival Fatah movement.

Israel has closed its borders with Gaza to shipments of all but humanitarian goods and has joined the United States and Europe in refusing contact with Hamas.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the fuel shipments, initially halted Thursday on security grounds, were to have resumed Sunday.

But European officials refused to lift the cutoff after learning that Hamas planned to impose a tax on electricity produced by the Gaza power plant, said Alix de Mauny, spokeswoman for the commission in Jerusalem. Resuming fuel payments could, in effect, help Hamas raise money by paying for the production of taxable electricity, she said.

The European Union classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and has funneled nearly $2.5 billion in assistance to the Palestinians this year through a special mechanism designed to skirt the Islamist group. Payments for the Gaza power station's fuel have totaled more than $70 million.

"We want to be sure that the money being given is fulfilling its purpose," de Mauny said.

The EU will resume paying the Israeli fuel supplier if the alliance is convinced Hamas will not tax the electricity bills of Gaza residents, de Mauny said.

"As soon as we get assurance, we will resume payment within hours," she said. "The ball is very much in Hamas' court right now."

Gaza's 1.4 million residents receive electricity from three sources: Israel, Egypt and what is produced by the plant in the central part of the coastal strip.

On Friday, the company that runs the Gaza plant shut off three of its four generators, noting fuel shortages after Israel stopped shipments last week. The plant halted fully Sunday when the EU notified Dor Alon, the Israeli fuel supplier, that it would not pay for a planned shipment.

In a statement, the Israeli company said it would renew deliveries "if and when the EU or any other trustworthy source will inform us it guarantees to pay for the fuels directed to the power station."

Hamas traded accusations with Fatah leaders in the West Bank over who was to blame. Fatah, whose rule is now limited to the West Bank under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Hamas was diverting electricity revenues to its own coffers.

Hamas denied that and accused Fatah of orchestrating the fuel cutoff as a way to pressure the group by further squeezing Gazans.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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